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Family Circle 2009 Fiction Contest: "On the Wire"

She was the second act to go on. Stella entered that gym like a kaleidoscope turning. The lights dimmed, and she climbed the ladder to the top of the tightrope. My dad said, "Can we stop her?" but my mother shook her head "no."

There was no music. No sound from the audience. The announcer simply said her name, and Stella stepped out onto the wire.

Seated next to me, my mother tensed up as if someone had stuck a pin in her arm. Ivan stood on the ground at the end of the wire, farthest from where Stella began.

Stella's posture as she walked was impeccable. My dad held his breath.

Stella was halfway across the rope when my mother stood.

"She will fall," she said.

I don't know if it was the way that Stella hesitated, only a second, when she reached the middle of the rope. Or if it was how her shoulders were hunched just a bit as she continued her walk. But somehow Mom knew.

Stella would fall.

I could take my eyes off my sister only for a few seconds at a time to watch my mother move quietly out onto the floor of the gymnasium. I could see she was trying to be invisible, her movements as fluid as a ballerina's. No one from the audience noticed her but me and my dad. He was rooted to his seat, his hand pressing too hard down on my left knee.

Stella would not be able to see our mom out on the gym floor from where she stood on the wire. The gym was too dark, the spotlight nearly blinding her.

And Stella fell.

She didn't scream. She made just a slight noise, an "Oh" noise, the noise that you make when someone startles you from behind, but then you turn quickly enough to see that you know them and your scream is stifled.

The audience gasped.

My mother was right there.

My mother, with her trapeze muscles that stuck around, caught Stella.

The weight of the impact barely bent her knees.

Stella lay across my mother's arms like a wet child pulled from the water.

When Ivan, running to where my mother stood, finally reached them, my mother held Stella out to him and he took her. My mother said something to him, before she sank to the floor, but I couldn't hear what it was.